After laying dormant in the polls for months, Scott Brown is looking increasingly competitive against Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, raising hopes among national Republicans that the former Massachusetts Senator might have one more upset victory left in him.
A CNN poll last week found Shaheen and Brown dead even, with 48% of likely voters saying they would support each candidate. It was the first survey by a major national pollster in several months to give Shaheen anything less than a solid single-digit lead.
Brown’s campaign may be the purest test of President Obama’s impact on the midterm elections of any contest in the country. While his entrance in the race was considered a recruiting coup for Republicans, Shaheen remains relatively popular, has led polls throughout the year, and hasn’t suffered from any significant campaign missteps. Obama’s approval rating in the state stood at 38% in CNN’s most recent poll.
“This is a proxy election and I don’t think any of the changes we’ve seen have had anything to do with the campaigns per se,” Andy Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, told msnbc. “I think it all has to do with the perceptions of President Obama.”
Smith’s own polling generated headlines last month when it detected a surge in support for Brown, who went from down 12 in June poll to down just 2 in August.
While the horse race numbers vary wildly from poll to poll (a recent CBS/NYT/YouGov this month survey gave Shaheen a 6-point lead), the most consistent feature is the two candidates’ personal popularity among New Hampshire voters – or lack thereof. Surveys consistently find Shaheen is relatively well-liked and Brown is relatively disliked. The CNN poll showing the race tied found that 54% of likely voters had a favorable impression of Shaheen versus 42% who had an unfavorable one while only 46% of likely voters had a favorable impression of Brown versus 48% who did not.
The big question is what this phenomenon means going forward. If you’re an optimistic Democrat, the answer is that Brown has a ceiling on his support. If you’re an optimistic Republican, the implication is that voters are so upset with the president that they’ll vote against an individual candidate they find appealing. This happened in another New England race in 2006, when Rhode Island voters angry with President Bush’s policies dumped centrist Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee even as the same voters told pollsters they liked him personally.
In interviews with msnbc, Democratic and Republican explanations for the tightening spread largely overlapped. Brown is enjoying a bump from winning a competitive Republican primary this month, voters are starting to tune into the race more, and Obama’s numbers are a drag on Democratic candidates in a swing state.
“Obama has been unpopular in NH for well over a year now,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said in an e-mail. “What happened is that the GOP primary ended.”
Democrats claim that, while the gap may have closed somewhat, the CNN and UNH polls are outliers. CNN gave Shaheen a 7-point lead among registered voters, suggesting a massive turnout differential that Democrats believe their ground game will deliver. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released an internal poll this week showing Shaheen up by 8 points among likely voters thanks to a whopping 24-point lead among women.
“We’re confident that Jeanne Shaheen is wining because of her long track record of working for New Hampshire and the fact Scott Brown is out to help Scott Brown,” DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky told msnbc. “We look forward to seeing what state he runs in next cycle.”
Correction: A previous version of this story attributed a quote to an NRSC press release that was quoting a news article. MSNBC regrets the error.